Second World War
The summer of 1940 was, as Churchill called it, Britain’s ‘finest hour’. It was also his. When the German armies conquered France, Britain found itself in the line of attack. With German U-boats patrolling the seas and soon to have bases on the Atlantic, and German bombers marshalling on the coast of France, Britain faced its first serious threat of invasion since 1805.
The months of June, July, August and September were to prove Churchill’s moment of ‘Destiny’. For more background information, see the Imperial War Museum’s material on 1940.
I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
Churchill, The Second World War
Many found it difficult to see how Britain could avoid being defeated. Victory seemed impossible. But Churchill was passionately opposed to negotiating with Hitler. The War Cabinet did consider a compromise peace – or at least the offer of mediation, by Italy, between Germany and the allies – but Churchill argued strongly against this. He was convinced that Hitler would renege on any promises or agreement, just as he had done back in 1938.
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Churchill inspecting the Parliamentary Home Guard. © Churchill Archives, The Broadwater Collection, BRDW 0I 00I 168
After failing to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe turned to night bombing raids against London and other British cities. The ‘Blitz’, as it became known, aimed to disrupt production and break morale. London was the main target and suffered the heaviest bombing but, by the end of the war, there was hardly a large city or town in Britain that had not come under attack.
As the winter wore on, the air raids became heavier. But the repeated heavy raids would not crush the morale of the British people. The ‘Blitz’ spirit kept them going. And Churchill played his part in keeping up morale. He made sure he was frequently in the public eye, constantly travelling around the country, visiting ammunition factories, shipyards, the troops.
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Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.
For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.
We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940
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Churchill inspects bomb damage caused by the German Luftwaffe during night air raids in Ramsgate, Kent, 28 August 1940. © Imperial War Museum H3514
On 18 June, Churchill warned the British people that the ‘battle of France’ was over and the ‘battle of Britain’ was about to begin. His words were proved right. As early summer gave way to July and August, the threat of invasion loomed over Britain.
If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies, choking in his own blood upon the ground.
Churchill, as quoted in Hugh Dalton’s Second World War Diary, entry for 28 May 1940
Churchill, seeing that control of the skies was vital, put businessman Lord Beaverbrook in charge of Aircraft Production (as Minister) and encouraged British scientists to improve radar defences and counter German technology. In August, the Royal Air Force managed to inflict heavy casualties on the German Luftwaffe and, in September, the German pilots transferred their attention from the coastal airfields and those in south-west England to London, allowing the fighter bases respite from attack but putting British people in the city at much greater risk. In early September a massive series of raids involving nearly four hundred German bombers and more than six hundred fighters targeted docks in London’s East End almost continuously, day and night.
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The Churchills with their grandson, Randolph’s son, who was born at the height of the London blitz, 10 October 1940. © Churchill Archives, Broadwater Collection
On 24 August, German night bombers aiming for the airfields accidentally destroyed several London homes due to a navigation error, killing civilians. Churchill retaliated immediately by bombing Berlin the following night.
Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights, and other British cities were targeted. But a real turning point in Britain’s fortunes in the war occurred on 15 September.
In an attempt to shatter British morale, now that an invasion began to seem increasingly unrealistic, Hitler sent two enormous waves of German bombers. But their attacks were scattered by the RAF; the German defeat caused Hitler to order, two days later, the postponement of preparations for the invasion. In the face of mounting losses of men and aircraft, the Luftwaffe switched from daylight to night-time bombing and although fighting continued in the air for several more weeks, and British cities continued to be bombed, German tactics to achieve air superiority ahead of an invasion had failed.
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For much of the war, Churchill lived not at 10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, but in ‘the Annexe’, a building nearby in Whitehall. Underneath this, were the Cabinet War Rooms (now a museum called the Churchill War Rooms) – a ‘bunker’ – where he and his government were protected from the worst the German bombers could rain down on London.
He spent a lot of his time here in meetings (although he only ever slept in the bedroom on three occasions), and ran it on ‘Winston time’; colleagues were expected to adapt to his way of working, staying up late at night to respond to his demands for updates on the war situation, analyzing reports and taking instructions (often with ‘Action this Day’ labels attached).
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Finest Hour 175, Winter 2017 Page 47 Daniel Todman, Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937–1941, Allen Lane, 2016, 848 pages, £30. ISBN 978–0713999273 Review by Mark Klobas Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network. Daniel Todman’s Into Battle is the first half of an […]
Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016 Page 49 Susan Elia MacNeal, The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent, Bantam, 2014, 306 pages, $16. ISBN 978–0345536747 Review by Michael McMenamin Portrayal of Churchill **1/2 Worth Reading *** The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent is the fourth book in the Maggie Hope series to be reviewed in Finest Hour. The first […]
Finest Hour 174, Autumn 2016 Page 48 Colin Holmes, Searching for Lord Haw-Haw: The Political Lives of William Joyce, Routledge, 2016, 494 pages, $24.95/£14.98. ISBN 978-1138888869 Review by Mark Klobas Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network. During the Second World War, millions of […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 46 Nial Barr, Eisenhower’s Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II, Pegasus Books, 2015, 544 pages, $35. ISBN: 978–1605988160 Review by Nigel Hamilton Nigel Hamilton is senior fellow in the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. Dr. Hamilton is author of Monty, an award-winning […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 42 Adrian Stewart, February 1942: Britain’s Darkest Days, Pen & Sword Military, 2015, 198 pages, £19.99. ISBN 978–1473821156 Review by Mark Klobas Mark Klobas teaches history at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona and hosts a podcast for the New Books Network. In any argument for when was the lowest […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 39 Paul Bew, Churchill and Ireland, Oxford University Press, 208 pages, £16.99/ $29.95. ISBN 978–0198755210 Review by Robert McNamara Robert McNamara teaches History at Ulster University and is the editor of The Churchills in Ireland 1660– 1965: Connections and Controversies (Irish Academic Press, 2011). What did Winston Churchill really […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 36 By Michael McMenamin 125 Years ago Summer 1891 • Age 16 “A Head for My Room” Lord Randolph was still in South Africa on business during the summer when he received Winston’s letter recounting, among other things, the abandoned factory windows he and some other Harrow students had […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 16 By Patrizio Romano Giangreco and Andrew Martin Garvey Patrizio Romano Giangreco lives in Italy. He is grateful to Andrew Martin Garvey of the University of Turin and Italian Officers College for assistance in preparing this article. At age nineteen Winston Churchill first set foot in Italy in August […]
Finest Hour 173, Summer 2016 Page 10 By Antoine Capet Antoine Capet is Professor Emeritus of British Studies at the University of Rouen. Strangely enough, we have a book on Churchill and Finland,1 but none on Churchill & France— only a number of articles and book chapters. Is it because of the sheer size of […]